When the Spanish conquistador Cortez landed in the New World intent on conquering the vast empire of the Aztecs — he gambled everything by burning his boats as his men watched.
Well, Payson has now poured the foundations of a $1.5 million fire station it likely won’t have the money to actually operate if it doesn’t land a federal grant to pay the bulk of the salaries of the new firefighters.
Moreover, construction has rushed forward, despite nagging questions about the bidding process.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans this week dismissed complaints by one of the contractors about the bid process and if the town doesn’t win the federal grant, it might not have enough to staff the new station when it’s finished in the spring.
“I just don’t know: I wish I could put all those what-ifs on the table — but some are just beyond my ability to figure into an equation.”
Despite two years of pay freezes, furloughs and hiring freezes, Payson will need somewhere between four to nine firefighters to staff a new fire truck in the new station at the intersection of Highway 260 and Tyler Parkway.
Evans said the town might hear as early as October whether it landed a federal SAFER grant to pay firefighters’ salaries for up to three years.
The town’s application last year was rejected. However, Payson immediately applied again for money in the current fiscal year. The program has notified the town it will hand out the grants for the winning applications over a period of eight months, with the first notices coming next month.
Paradoxically, Payson’s chances of landing the federal grant have increased as a result of fire department layoffs across the country. The federal government doubled funding for the $420 million federal stimulus program to boost the economy. However, the money is reserved for new firefighter positions, not avoiding layoffs or bringing back laid-off firefighters.
Evans said if the town doesn’t get the grant, it might have to mothball the new station.
The attempt to use $1.5 million in leftover, voter-approved bond money to build a third fire station has skittered along the edge of controversy for the past year.
Payson’s decision to start building the fire station despite the recession immediately affected neighboring Hellsgate Fire Department, which had depended critically on a $130,000 contract with Payson to provide backup and mutual aid — especially in the overlap area on Payson’s eastern border that the new fire station will serve. Payson can devote that money now to operating its own station, but the move triggered downsizing for Hellsgate, which protects Star Valley and a host of smaller communities.
Next, one of the low-bid contractors protested alleged irregularities in the bidding process.
Payson rejected the three low bidders on the fire station contract because of missing paperwork in their sealed bid packages. Two of the out-of-town bidders, Dean Douglas Development and Edge Construction, were rejected because they did not include a required list of subcontractors.
Instead, the bid went to the local Amon Builders for $1.25 million. Dean Douglas bid $1.1 million and Edge bid $1.2 million.
Ed Patterson, president of Dean Douglas, later protested that he had included the list of subcontractors in his sealed bid and claimed someone from the town must have removed or lost the subcontractor list after the bids were opened.
Douglas said he talked to representatives of Edge Construction who made the same claim. However, Edge Construction officials did not return calls from the Roundup seeking comment and did not lodge a complaint with the town.
Patterson wrote a letter to the town seeking reconsideration and suggested that the town should open bids publicly in the future.
“Dean Douglas takes tremendous pride in our thoroughness in preparing bid documents and our thoroughness in the bidding process. We have never been disqualified from a bid due to missing documents.
“Public openings (of sealed bids) are required for the reason of avoiding such situations, to eliminate the possibility of convenient awards to a local contractor who ranked #4 and take away the confidence of all submitting contractors for a fair and honest bid process. We don’t wish to make accusations, however, when a bidding process is not managed appropriately, then it opens the door for shady business practices.”
Payson Public Works Director LaRon Garrett said he personally had opened the bids and verified that the subcontractor list was missing. He said only he and his assistant had handled the bid packages.
Mayor Evans said council members were aware of Patterson’s complaint, but saw no reason to doubt the town’s staff on the condition of the bids. State law sets strict rules for conducting the sealed bid process, but gives the town some flexibility in deciding whether to accept the low bid or go with a different bidder. Generally, it is not a good enough reason to simply prefer the local bidder.
“We can’t make the decision based on whether (the contractor) is local,” said Evans.
“I evaluated all of them as local in that they were companies within a 100-mile radius. I don’t think the council ever saw the bid packets — what we saw were the summary sheets. I was looking at what was the best bid for the money that was bid — not the lowest price bid. I asked the town manager and the town attorney and the public works director to look into it and they assured me there was nothing to the allegation.”
Aside from the controversy about the bid packages, the town council has also staunchly defended the decision to finally deliver on a promise made to the voters in 2003, when the public facilities bond election originally passed.
The town currently spends about $2.8 million annually on its fire department, about 80 percent goes to salaries. The town has struggled to balance its budget for the past two years.
Among other adjustments, the town has cut the number of firefighters on each truck on most shifts from three to two, curtailed training, imposed furloughs and drastically reduced overtime. Previously, the fire department had routinely relied on overtime pay for most of its training.
In theory, adding a third station could boost the operating budget by one-third or nearly $1 million.
The town has since ended the furloughs, loosened up the overtime budget and resumed hiring.
Evans said the town could probably operate the station on a shoestring.
Evans said Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi “would like to see three people on every truck. Sure. That’s optimal. Then there’s the wished for and then there’s the minimum. It would be nice to have everything you could wish for, but we may end up having to deal with whatever is the minimum standard to operate.”
For instance, he said Payson has so far suffered no problems as a result of cutting crews on fire trucks from three to two.
The overwhelming majority of fire department calls involve medical emergencies — ranging from minor to life-threatening. Payson’s emergency medical system relies on a paramedic-staffed fire truck as the first line of defense, with private ambulances arriving later to provide backup and transport to the hospital.
If the town added another two-man truck at the east end of town, that could actually provide more backup for two-man trucks, said Evans. Even if two trucks responded to a call, a third truck could shift to the centrally located fire station to provide coverage while other crews were tied up.
The primary argument in favor of the third fire station lies in cutting several minutes off response times in the two country clubs at the east end. As if to underscore the need, several homes in Chaparral Pines have burned down in the past two years. However, the reduced response time is probably more of a factor when it comes to medical emergencies — like a severe heart attack. Generally, the odds of death and severe disability increase markedly if people who suffer a heart attack don’t get treatment within five minutes.
Evans said the council felt it had an obligation to the voters who approved the bonds in 2003 to follow through on promises made then — despite the current financial uncertainties.
“This was a voter initiated measure: We’re doing what the public wants, which is to get that money disbursed so the time for the first truck to arrive on the scene is minimized. The catastrophic fires we have seen would support that we’re building the station where we’re building it.”
So while the boats for home burn at the waterline and workers put the finishing touches on the foundation, Payson will have to take its chances on another federal bailout.